Famous Father Girl - A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein
by Jamie Bernstein
385 pages including appendices and index
First published 2018
Leonard Bernstein died in October 1990 at the age of 72. The centenary of his birth is being widely marked this year and this book by his eldest daughter - part biography, part autobiography - gives us a revealing view of what it was like to grow up not just in the shadow of a famous father but in the shadow of a personality who was outsize in every possible way.
Leonard Bernstein married the Chilean actress Felicia Montealegre in 1951. Their first daughter, Jamie, was born in the following year and her two siblings, Alexander and Nina were born respectively in 1955 and 1962. The first part of Jamie Bernstein’s book describes a childhood that was hectic, happy and prosperous. On the back of Lenny’s rising celebrity and fortune the family were very comfortably off, owning a large duplex in Park Avenue and also a holiday home in Fairfield, Connecticut, purchased when Jamie was 10. Lenny became Music Director of the New York Philharmonic in 1958 and this position, plus his fame as the composer of scores such as West Side Story inevitably impinged on his young family. The expression ‘Famous Father Girl’ was used by one of Jamie’s second grade friends but, she relates, by the time she’d reached fifth grade ‘I just wanted to be normal’. But it’s not easy for a child to be “normal” when the likes of Adolph Green and Betty Comden, Jerome Robbins, Steven Sondheim., Aaron Copland, Isaac Stern and Lauren Bacall are family friends and frequent visitors to your apartment.
Jamie Bernstein is frank in outlining the tensions that gradually crept in. Partly these were associated with the fact that her mother had given up her own acting career but came to hate being what she termed “Mrs Maestro”. Jamie has an excellent and detailed recall of her childhood – far better than I have – but I guess that if your parents were as vivid and colourful as Leonard and Felicia Bernstein your memories would be pretty strong. But even though, as she records, there were increasing tensions in the Bernstein family, Lenny’s position and fame brought compensations, such as the occasion in 1965 when her father got the chance for a meeting with the Beatles backstage at the Ed Sullivan Show and took Jamie and Alexander along. As she says ‘I was in a coma of awe’.
This is no work of hagiography. For example, she’s commendably frank about the impact of her father’s sexuality on her as an adolescent girl. She also comments candidly on some of her father’s own pieces. One such is the Third Symphony, ‘Kaddish’. Her mother was uneasy with the narration, written expressly for her, and neither Jamie nor her brother liked the work. On the other hand, she is very ready to take up the cudgels to defend her parents and perhaps the prime example in the book concerns the infamous ‘Black Panther’ fundraiser held at the Bernstein’s apartment. This was the event mercilessly – and memorably – described by the late Tom Wolfe as ‘radical chic’, though his article was published a little later, after other commentators had had their equally critical say. In fact, as Jamie points out, it was her mother who was the prime mover behind the event and her father turned up late after another engagement. Even now, many years later, her bitterness towards Wolfe for the damage it caused both her parents is raw. (The book was written before Wolfe’s recent death.) This was but one of many examples of the Bernsteins’ liberal leanings. Much later in his life Lenny used the Freedom of Information Act to see his FBI dossier: it was 800 pages long!
There is a good deal of sadness in this book. The first cause of sadness is the deterioration in the relationship between her parents. There were a variety of causes, including Lenny’s homosexual dalliances and his frenetic workload that took him away for long periods of time. Eventually, after Felicia had undergone surgery for breast cancer, the Bernstein family moved their New York residence from the Park Avenue apartment to one in the famous Dakota building and Lennie and Felicia now occupied separate bedrooms. I’m unsure exactly when this took place because it’s an irritating feature of the book that for too few of the events that Jamie Bernstein describes does she give a date. (The reader can sometimes infer a date but that’s not the same thing.) At this point in the story she speaks of her mother’s ‘slow descent into a mute, existential despair.’
There are sadnesses, too, concerning her father’s work, none more so, perhaps, than the flop that was 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. This show, a collaboration with Alan Jay Lerner, was designed to mark the 1976 Bicentennial of the USA. Jamie says that her father and Lerner wanted to make a statement about democracy, which they felt was badly needed in the wake of the Watergate scandal. Unfortunately, as she puts it, though she admired her father’s music, ‘his huge score had been stuffed into a vehicle that could not carry it’. To compound the failure of the show, there were the family issues – including the fact that Lenny was now in a relationship with Tommy Cothran - and all this led to a crisis for the Bernstein siblings. ‘When we were little, our father had been unassailably magnificent to us – just as he had been to the world. Now he seemed complex, flawed, mortal. Squaring the early Daddy with the later one would be our challenge from now on.’
In late 1976 Bernstein broke up with Cothran, though they remained friends, and a reconciliation with Felicia was effected. However, her death from cancer in January 1978 had a devastating effect on all the family. Later in the narrative, Jamie bemoans the loss of Felicia’s steadying influence on her father, even if she had loathed being “Mrs Maestro”.
She describes, very honestly, her own career struggles. She tried, unsuccessfully, to make a career as a writer and performer of pop songs, first on the West Coast and then back in New York. This offers another example of a theme that runs through the book: how hard it was for her to escape her father’s shadow, even when he was trying to help, and to carve out her own path in life. Ironically, it is only since his death that she has found her true calling, as we shall see.
After a string of romances, Jamie met and, in December 1984, married David Thomas. The marriage took place at the same time that her father was making his DG recording of West Side Story and this produces a fascinating little side story. The casting of Josť Carreras as Tony was, and remains, controversial, but he was a late choice. Jamie relates that, as the session dates drew ever nearer and the search for a tenor was becoming ever more urgent, someone went so far as to suggest Luciano Pavarotti for the role of Tony – thankfully, Lenny immediately vetoed that proposal. Then Bernstein himself heard a tenor he liked but he couldn’t remember the singer’s name, other than that it was Hispanic. Two and two were put together and the assumption was made that Lenny must have meant Carreras. Only later was it established that the voice Lenny had heard belonged to Alberto Remedios. It’s one of music’s tantalising ‘might have beens’, though somehow, I don’t think Siegfried meets Manhattan would have been a musical marriage made in heaven!
It’s heartening to read how Jamie’s husband, David became warmly accepted into the family by her father and her siblings, though it seems that some ten years after her father’s death the marriage came to an end. (She is very discreet on this point.) Before Lenny died, she and David made him a grandfather twice over. Her daughter, Frankie was born in March 1987 and her son, Evan arrived in October 1989. Poignantly, her father died on Evan’s first birthday.
Jamie Bernstein is candid in describing the problems of her father’s last years. He took far too many pills, drank too much alcohol and smoked heavily. Worst of all, I suspect, were the hangers-on – it’s in this context that she laments the loss of her mother’s steadying influence. When, in late 1989, her father went to London to make his live recording of Candide with the LSO he invited all three of his children to make the trip with him but they all declined in order to escape the entourage. Someone who did make the trip was Adolph Green, who took the role of Pangloss. Of him, Jamie comments that he had known her father since his teens and knew him intimately, ‘Towards the end, few knew the real Lenny – maybe not even Lenny himself – but Lenny felt the goodness of keeping Adolph close.’
Conductors are famed for their longevity; many remain active into their 80s. Not Leonard Bernstein. Jamie chronicles her father’s last couple of years and the eventual diagnosis of lung cancer. Her description of his final concert, with the Boston Symphony at his beloved Tanglewood, is harrowing. A glittering, if sometimes controversial, career had a sad ending.
What is not sad, however, is to read in the final portion of the book, how his three children have continued his legacy and in so doing are not so much in their father’s shadow as respectful of it. Jamie has found her niche in presenting concerts, mainly for children and usually, though not exclusively, featuring the music of Leonard Bernstein. In this she is following the path that her father had marked out all those years ago with his televised Young People’s Concerts. This work, she says, has brought her to the realisation that she has ‘an energy and appetite similar to my father’s – not just for sharing the joys of music with audiences, but also for travel, people, intense work, intense play.’
The picture of Leonard Bernstein that emerges from this book is, in many ways, one with which we are already familiar: a hugely talented musician, a complex and larger-than-life character who lived life in the fast lane and who was prone to significant mood swings. But here we see him up close and personal through the eyes of someone who knew him intimately, observed him at close quarters for the best part of four decades and who is uniquely qualified to show us his vulnerable side. Jamie Bernstein profited from being Leonard Bernstein’s daughter in that she had a privileged and exciting upbringing but there were downsides too. For instance, many doors opened for her on account of who she was, but the name Bernstein could be a disadvantage too. She tells of the problems she encountered but not in a self-pitying way – and she’s self-critical too.
The book contains many black and white photographs, mostly family pictures. These are very interesting although the images are on the small side.
Jamie Bernstein has written an absorbing book which is a fascinating complement to Humphrey Burton’s huge biography of her father. Her style is fluent and readable. As I mentioned earlier, it is a pity that she doesn’t date many more episodes in her story; often the reader is left to guess or deduce. In all other respects, though, this is a book that all those interested in the phenomenon that was Leonard Bernstein should read.